The unfriend zone

Had a relationship bust up? The road towards healing, we are told, begins with devouring ice cream (or cocktails), commiserating with close friends, then singing along defiantly to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.”  

But what if the break up was with one of those close friends? 

Where’s the cultural script for coping with the loss of a mate we once held dear?

The truth is that my friendships with other women have always been some of the most emotionally intimate relationships I’ve had, and I’m not alone in feeling this way. 

Research shows that for women in particular, their girl gang provides deep intimacy; a bond often lubricated through the sharing of our vulnerabilities. Feeling like a fraud at work. Worrying that our once-predictable bodies seem to be turning on us in new and entirely surprising ways. Deciding there are days when being a parent feels impossible and we dream of running away.

Rather than being a bitter or despairing exchange, often these revelations between mates are side-splittingly funny; there is much humour to be had in facing the dark when one does so holding a friend’s hand. And it is through these types of exchanges that we feel understood and connected.

But while robust disagreement, debates and spirited differences of opinion can all be part and parcel of a healthy friendship, when they start to become destructive, then even the most enduring friendships can break.

Tellingly, women often tend to simply drift away from friends they feel are no longer good for them – to withdraw, rather than to face the issue head on. A friend revealed that after finding her work “wifey” increasingly challenging, she actually found it easier to change employers, than to confront her. “Honestly, it was all just too painful to discuss,” she confessed. “With men I’ve dated, at least I could admit I no longer found them attractive. But how do you tell someone that you no longer want to be their friend?” 

Although it can be both awkward and upsetting, I’ve always preferred the more direct approach and if I have cared about a friend, I’ve cared enough to respectfully explain to them why I was withdrawing. 

At the risk of sounding like clean-up queen Marie Kondo, I also try to release my friends with love; to acknowledge what they meant to me, and reassure them that I will be hoping for good things in their life (after all, forgiveness is not excusing bad treatment or giving others permission to treat you badly. It is about letting toxic feelings of resentment and bitterness out of your system so you can heal and allow positive emotions to return). 

 But even if it is me who has called time out, the void remains. I still see things I know one of my ex high school besties would find amusing and long to tell her, and then watch her throw her head back and laugh.

 And it is the gaping absence left behind when we lose a beloved friend, not through a falling out, but rather thorough death, which can be particularly brutal.

Author and academic Dr Karen Brooks lost her best friend of twenty years, Sara Douglass, to cancer in 2011. 

Although Brooks tells me “it was like having a part of my soul carved away” the extent of her grief was more challenging to articulate to others; there was no neat label such as “widow” to capture just how central Douglass had been to her life. 

“It’s different to the love of someone you have a sexual relationship with,” Brooks explains, “I love my husband deeply. Yet she was my other half, she made me whole. It knocked me off my feet and, eight years on, I still don’t think I’ve found my footing.”

Author of The Friendship Cure, Kate Leaver, agrees that it’s high time we acknowledge the grief felt by those who lose a friend. In her book she argues, “We have been so utterly captivated by the breakdown of romantic love that we’ve practically forgotten to investigate how the heart aches when a friendship is, for whatever reason, over.” 

Perhaps it’s time to compose a new anthem on loss. A song that sings of love in all its many manifestations, and of the pain that is left behind when we face the future without someone who was once a beloved companion and confidante – whether the choice is ours or not. 

This post was first published in the Daily Telegraph